Safety in numbers? Lib Dem ministers to vote for fees hike

All Liberal Democrat ministers will vote in favour of the rise in tuition fees, but a number of backbenchers are likely to revolt.

December 8, 2010

Following a meeting of the party’s MPs at Westminster yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said support had been secured from the 17 ministers, but he accepted there would be rebels among the Lib Dem ranks.

The controversial proposal to raise the fees cap to £9,000 – with a lower threshold of £6,000 above which universities must meet stricter access agreements – will be put to the vote in the House of Commons tomorrow.

Today, the government announced last-minute changes to the proposals – including lowering the threshold under which part-time students will be eligible for fee loans.

It said undergraduates studying at an intensity level equivalent to at least 25 per cent of full-time courses would receive support after vice-chancellors expressed concerns that the original 33 per cent proposal would not “mesh” with existing courses.

The government also announced that the £21,000 threshold for fee repayments would be increased in line with earnings every year from 2016 – rather than every five years – with the current £15,000 threshold rising annually in line with inflation from 2012 to 2016.

With 17 Lib Dem ministers voting in favour of fees reform, it is likely the measure will pass, but matters have been complicated by a small number of Conservative MPs, including former leadership candidate David Davis, saying they will vote against the plans.

Some high-profile Lib Dem backbenchers have also stated they will oppose the rise, including former party leaders Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, while parliamentary private secretaries will be allowed to abstain.

Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, who had opposed party leader Ed Miliband’s preference for a graduate tax, has now said there is a “strong case” for the policy.

Writing in The Times, Mr Johnson said the government was “abusing” the system of variable fees and “in these circumstances there is a strong case for a graduate tax, which may offer a fairer way of sharing costs between individuals and government”.

Meanwhile, as students across the country prepare for their final protests ahead of the vote, a letter signed by board members of Universities UK urging MPs to support the rise has been published in The Daily Telegraph.

UUK had originally hoped to include a letter signed by all English vice-chancellors, but a number refused to comply.

Three board members – Les Ebdon of the University of Bedfordshire, Caroline Gipps of the University of Wolverhampton and Paul O’Prey of Roehampton University – have also declined to sign.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

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